Tow Center

Local news faces a political future as the JCPA falls foul of lobbyists

December 12, 2022

It has been a big week for journalism funding in the United States. Or rather it could have been a big week. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, a bill designed to provide a limited time ‘safe harbor’ for some news organizations to collectively bargain with platforms for payments, notably Google and Meta, was alive on Monday and dead by Tuesday evening. It lasted less time than a British Prime Minister, or a warm lettuce, tacked onto the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act defense spending bill. The reasons for its rapid removal lie in a strong bi-partisan and well-funded lobbying effort to kill it. Repeating what was an unsuccessful tactic against similar legislation in Australia, and again in Canada, Meta said they would have no option but to pull news from Facebook if the Bill passed.

The regulatory landscape in the US suggests that a Bill like the JCPA would be difficult to pass. Google and Meta are both very active and wealthy lobbyists, who targeted the provisions of the Bill in both this and former iterations. Surprisingly perhaps many journalists and some journalism trade groups also went on the record to oppose the bill, such as the Local Independent Online News publishers, who work closely with Google to distribute their journalism program funds. A fair number of the trade and civil society organizations opposing the legislation are themselves recipients of at least some funding or close commercial partnerships from Google or Meta over the past five years. The lack of clarity in who funds which organization makes the evaluation of potential legislative fixes in the US particularly difficult to gauge.

But with the JCPA dead, with Meta withdrawing from almost all journalism funding activities, and the alternative potential federally mandated funding sources unlikely to pass in a Republican controlled House, the question remains who or what will support the gaps in local journalism funding? In 2023, after a brief respite in 2020 to 2022, the economic omens are again looking bleak for news journalism. This week even the  New York Times guild members went on strike and the Washington Post, owned by multi billionaire Jeff Bezos, announced the closure of its Sunday Magazine with attendant layoffs. A week earlier CNN and Gannett had also announced sweeping staff cuts. But as the recognized professional field of journalism shrinks, the material which is filling gaps grows.

In the run up to the 2022 Midterm elections, the Tow Center increased its work on looking at the political and dark money funding of local news outlets. This work started in 2019 and has only grown since. For the first time in this election cycle this type of ‘pink slime’ news broke cover in high profile campaigns as Tow fellow Jem Bartholomew reported from the Illinois gubernatorial race. Our computational journalism research fellow Priyanjana Bengani unearthed previously unknown links to a dark money news network from a much wider right leaning network of funders. Former Tow Fellow Sara Rafsky even conducted research to look at the effect these low quality titles have on audience perceptions of the news (answer, people find it harder than one might imagine at first sight to tell the difference between these titles and regular news outlets). Although initially a right wing tactic for political engagement, the model for targeted local news with a political end in mind is moving across the political spectrum. Nancy Scola’s in-depth reporting for Wired about the formation of the Courier Newsroom chain that grew out of a Democratic PAC underlined just how widespread this type of media operation could become. Our own Sarah Grevy Gotfredsen spent time in the Courier’s Detroit operation the “Gander” in a fascinating report. As Grevy Gotfredsen notes, the process of reporting for a Courier outlet looks remarkably like political campaigning :

“The newsroom has borrowed the political tactics of ‘microtargeting,’ whereby particular messages are tailored to unique slices of the population in a bid to boost turnout at voting booths. Employees at Courier’s headquarters are responsible for testing whether content produced by its local newsrooms is successful in moving voters in a desired progressive direction.”

The formatting and targeting of specific stories to specific voting demographics and the imperative to measure results by moving the voting needle is a common theme between all similar publications who operate this model. One striking aspect of Courier’s business model is that however different its transparency and journalism might be from those on the right, such as Metric Media, the business model is the same: Money from interested parties who seek a particular political outcome.

In the Semafor media newsletter this week Max Tani described how Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is eschewing traditional media, even on the most mainstream of platforms such as The View, for a little known media outlet Florida Voice, which carries an unfiltered direct to audience coverage. This is nothing new, but the failure of viable alternatives in local markets raise the question whether we will see a dramatic shift in the local media landscape over the next two years to the point where the hyper partisan press is a larger presence than legacy news.

If the many congressional efforts to try and support some sort of independent public interest reporting fail, then the political consequences for what happens in the local news market could be as profound as the economic effects on an already ailing news industry.

Announcing the Local News Disinformation Network

In recent years, we have chronicled how political disinformation and thinly-veiled propaganda, particularly in contested battleground states, has remade itself to look like legitimate local news. The danger to journalism seems clear. We are assembling a group of newsrooms around the country that are interested in helping to monitor this trend and raise awareness of it among their readers and viewers. As a member of the Local News Disinformation Network, you would:

  • Have access to research and reporting from CJR and Tow that may relate to your coverage area

  • Be connected to other newsrooms around the country facing similar issues, in terms of disinformation, propaganda, or threats

  • Be invited to share insights, and even stories, which could be distributed for free to other members of the network

We believe this is a critical moment for local journalism: disinformation and political propaganda are increasingly targeting local politics at a time when many newsrooms are stretched as never before. Our hope is that by working together, we can increase our capacity to fight back. This effort is patterned after Covering Climate Now, a groundbreaking collaboration that CJR launched three years ago to encourage more and better coverage of the climate crisis.

That project now encompasses 600 newsrooms around the world. Our goal here is much more targeted but, we believe, just as important. If you are a newsroom that would like to join us or are interested in more information, please reach out to Mathew Ingram at the Columbia Journalism Review.

About the Tow Center

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, a partner of CJR, is a research center exploring the ways in which technology is changing journalism, its practice and its consumption — as we seek new ways to judge the reliability, standards, and credibility of information online.

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